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Movie Review: Gifted

Gifted starring Chris Evans (Captain America) is foremost a movie about people of ability. This differentiates Gifted from most child-themed movies. The kid that plays the girl, McKenna Grace, is not precocious. In fact, the actress is very good in the role, with a sharp tongue that reminds me of a younger Quinn Cummings (Family, The Goodbye Girl) and, directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) working with Tom Flynn’s screenplay, hitting every mark without trying too hard or coming off like she’s a miniature 36-year-old. Gifted is better at dramatizing the psychology of guiding a life, and parenting a child, than it is at portraying philosophy in action.

Reuniting with his Snowpiercer co-star, Octavia Spencer (Black or White, Hidden Figures), Evans essentially plays himself; the likable, good-looking, sensitive, strong and silent type who does the right thing for the right reasons and does so without bravado. Here, he plays Frank, who’s raising his suicidal sister’s kid in a Florida home rented from Spencer’s character. He fixes boats, steps on Lego pieces and tries to protect the girl from whatever hard-boiled family secrets and mysteries linger in the past, which the audience knows they’re going to learn as this chipper, bright Fox Searchlight movie rolls along. Learn the audience does, with an elementary schoolteacher (Jenny Slate, who voiced Bellwether in Zootopia) pushing for answers to the puzzle of this exceptionally bright child, and a granny up north in Boston (Lindsay Duncan, Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass) who wants the best.

That secrets pit mother against son comes as no big surprise. The folksy wisdom is too pat, a false dichotomy underpins the plot’s conflict and a custody courtroom speech comes out of left field (even though it’s true, despite what the filmmakers may think). But the script’s sincerity wins you over in what plays as a kind of antidote to the Whiplash theme that being the best means pushing harder. With biting lines about bearded academics, porn producers and saying things we don’t always mean, Gifted, which unequivocally embraces making value-judgments for being one’s best, manages to be both thoughtful and moving (with help from a cat named Fred). Like Jon Turteltaub’s Phenomenon, Gifted gives being the best and brightest its due, dramatizing the tradeoff, too. And, while it doesn’t quite achieve the balance or serenity it seeks to showcase, it depicts that as the proper goal.

Preview: TCM Classic Film Festival 2017

Comedy’s the theme for this year’s classic film festival from Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which TCM is dedicating to its late host Robert Osborne. With movies screening this week in Hollywood, and guests ranging from Joel McCrea‘s grandson to film scholars Donald Bogle, Leonard Maltin and, on opening night, director Norman Jewison with 90-year-old Sidney Poitier for a 50th anniversary tribute to In the Heat of the Night (1967), the “Make ’em Laugh” theme is likely to be delivered with the brand’s unique ability to take movies, including those laced with humor, seriously.

That said, TCM’s movie picks include the dark (1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Harold and Maude) and asinine (The Jerk) and film comedy’s modern godfather Mel Brooks is scheduled for an appearance. I’m looking forward to having an opportunity to see, meet or cover pictures and guests such as King of Hearts (one of my first theatrical movies) with Genevieve Bujold (Coma, Anne of the Thousand Days), a wonderful actress whom I’ve had the pleasure to interview.

Some of my favorite directors, Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch, are represented with America America, Rear Window, Red River and So This is Paris. A restored version of Mike NicholsThe Graduate will be screened. Bob Newhart will comment on his 1962 motion picture debut. Stanley Kramer’s 1963 It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World will screen at the Cinerama Dome. Speakers, guests and filmmakers include Peter Bogdanovich (She’s Funny That Way, Mask, The Last Picture Show), Dick Cavett, Quincy Jones, Lee Grant, Walter Mirisch, Buck Henry, Rob Reiner and his father, Carl, Fred Willard and Alex Trebek.

This is my third TCM festival. Last year’s festival included an interview with Faye Dunaway (read my exclusive report here) and, as usual, thoughtful introductions to movies by Leonard Maltin (read my exclusive 2015 interview with him about TCM and classic movies here). Gathering with people who love movies is a wonderful bonus for this movie fan, journalist and storyteller. Being among those who think about movies, and seek to know why they love ’em, is the best.


Related Links

TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

TCM Classic Film Festival 2015

Robert Osborne

Interview: Leonard Maltin on TCM and Classic Movies (2015)

Faye Dunaway on Turner Classic Movies (2016)

‘Hidden Figures’ on Home Video

The movie almost everyone loves, last year’s popular Hidden Fgures, debuts on home video today.

When I saw it last year, I enjoyed it so much that I thought maybe I may have missed something; that it might have been too polished for me to notice any shortcomings. So I asked for a second screening, which is something I rarely do and only in an extreme effort to be objective. I liked it better on a second viewing, even as I became more aware of its flaws, such as some overacting.

Buy the Movie

Why is this Oscar-nominated movie so universally well liked by audiences? I think it’s because, like any serious, goal-driven project, Hidden Figures keeps perspective and keeps its topic rooted in reality. So, while the story of three individuals of ability, who happen to be Negro women at a time when blacks and women were prejudged and unjustly treated, takes injustice seriously, the movie co-written and directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) also takes its higher aim seriously: to depict the achievement of excellence. The women’s accomplishments were not overdramatized; they were properly depicted as an important and integral part of a whole which led to an act of outstanding, and uniquely, inextricably American, progress.

The struggle was portrayed with realism, not sugarcoated or diminished. But so, too, the byproduct of the ladies’ productiveness was depicted and Melfi and company did so without minimizing the achievements of the NASA (actually, pre-NASA) engineers, scientists and astronauts. Too often, movies about overcoming adversity and injustice oversimplify facts, drop context and present a false dichotomy, lacking in depth and nuance. Hidden Figures, whatever its limitations, dramatizes the hard work of real progress, social and scientific, the simplicity of being appreciated for one’s ability and the power of unifying to achieve a grand and noble goal.

This is a rare and desperately needed depiction, and, sometimes, these points are obscured or lost in press tours, but that’s what makes this upbeat, uplifting movie appealing—it shows everyone that being one’s best is the perfect defense of every persecuted individual, especially the persecuted person of ability. I’ve added my exclusive interview with the film’s director, Ted Melfi, to the archive. Read the interview, read my review of Hidden Figures and buy the movie.


Buy the Movie

Movie Review: Hidden Figures

Interview: Theodore Melfi on Hidden Figures

Movie Review: Wilson

Based on a comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer), Wilson purports to have, in the words of its title character (Woody Harrelson) the “courage to go your own way.”

With a cute dog and Harrelson—appearing with talented The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio co-star Laura Dern (Wild, The Founder, Jurassic Park) as his ex-wife—perfectly cast as a rambling type of angry white male that’s commonly ridiculed and rarely depicted with any depth, let alone with good humor, Wilson might have scored. Unfortunately, the movie based on the works of Daniel Clowes, who also wrote the movie’s screenplay, draws a blank.

As that guy, i.e., an unfiltered, unhinged and apparently unemployed man who’s a case of arrested development, Harrelson plays to type in what should be an outstanding role for him. He’s suited to this sort of quirky film character. As his junkie ex-spouse, Dern feeds him plenty of set-ups. They reunite after a long introduction in which Wilson appears to have no means of financial support, except perhaps for a dying father who doesn’t love him, though whether he leaves Wilson any money is unclear. In the sort of scene that could have been a springboard to thematic coherence and isn’t, Dern’s waitress and nomadic Wilson hide behind mannequins while stalking the kid she gave up for adoption.

Stand alone jokes earning a chuckle every 15 minutes and an eventually obvious reason for Wilson’s inappropriateness aside, Wilson putters along like a series of situational skits without a point, most of which are not funny. Actress Judy Greer (Ant-Man, TV’s Archer, Grandma) as the dogsitting love interest does add value but it’s not enough. All the wandering, stalking, joking and rambling adds up to an Apatow-style vulgarity message about procreation as the purpose of one’s life, with an emphasis on blood and carrying on your own DNA, not exactly a humanistic or interesting notion. Like the manic, raunchy movies in which the sleaze is rationalized because everyone decides to settle down, settle for less and just make more babies and conform, Wilson is purely an exercise in bland traditionalism in the final analysis, which makes Wilson a middling trip into one man’s damaged psyche.

At one point, Wilson watches icicles melt. It’s the kind of scene that might play well in a cartoon strip, as a wry, knowing look at middle-aged man’s lament. But, when one character deadpans that “this is gonna be fun,” you’re already in on the fact that it isn’t, which makes Wilson flatter than it already is.

Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island

A new adaptation of King Kong, a Warner Bros. picture titled Kong: Skull Island which debuts in theaters this week, is better than expected.

That’s not saying much. The 1933 original was spellbinding to me as a kid when I first saw it on TV, but I think it’s overestimated at the expense of other great adventure-themed classic movies, such as Wings, Red Dust and Gunga Din. The effects-heavy 1976 film is mediocre. The Peter Jackson version, which included characters running with dinosaurs (years before the godawful Jurassic World), is one of the worst movies I’ve seen. To be clear, Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie.

That is its best asset. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, working from a story by John Gatins (Coach Carter) with a script by a few writers including writers partly responsible for a Godzilla movie and that godawful Jurassic film, shrewdly downplays everything that Peter Jackson overplayed, such as the giant gorilla’s affection for the human female, in favor of a wider and deeper cultural framework. This keeps Kong from getting too campy, though camp comes with the package. Still, while it is not as clever as its makers apparently think, Kong works several angles—America’s slide toward military statism, hollowing out from the irrational Vietnam War, the fall of man—into its loss recovery theme that mind trumps muscle.

After a prelude in the South Pacific in 1944, the journey starts in Washington and Da Nang, South Vietnam in 1973, as Kong leads with exotic voyage pitchman John Goodman (The Artist) and his more rational right-hand man (Corey Hawkins) to sell a key politician on funding the trip to a “place where myth and science meet”. First, they tap a military leader played by Samuel L. Jackson (overacting and no stranger to fighting ferocious jungle apes as he recently did in The Legend of Tarzan). Jackson’s gung-ho type mulls over war medals with a Budweiser within reach.

Rain falls, things get slippery and, passing a sign that warns to “Think Safety”, it’s off to Saigon where Tom Hiddleston (outstanding in I Saw the Light and Thor‘s Loki no more) is hired as the rogue to lead the way. In Bangkok, Brie Larson (Room) comes on board for the modernized Fay Wray role, happily neither as a hyper-butch kickboxer like most female characters in action movies nor as a hyper-feminized vixen like many of today’s female characters—she’s a competent war or, as she puts it in one of the better exchanges, anti-war, photographer—and the cast is capable, notably leads Larson and Hiddleston but also actors in smaller roles such as John Ortiz (A Dog’s Purpose) as a quiet soldier and John C. Reilly (Chicago) as a lost soldier. Add period songs including a David Bowie ditty, crisp lines of dialogue and excellent graphics, sound and visual effects and clarity in exposition and Kong, sufficiently scored by Henry Jackman, keeps the plot moving.

Kong looks as realistic as one can expect from a computerized depiction of a gigantic gorilla.

With references to John Wayne, Chicago’s Cubs and a classic Forties tune hinting (with an after-credits scene) at a series, the director seems to be striving for American cultural commentary. With noble savages in a habitat hailed as being free from “crime and personal property” (except apparently for treasured private property such as a camera, cigarette lighter and a soldier’s wartime letter to his faraway child) and an overly arranged multiracial cast, results are mixed. Certain parts are too broad or obvious, such as 1973 Vietnam War soldiers posing for pictures like they’re on Facebook in 2013, a dragonfly shot with a helicopter, a Nixon bobblehead, Apocalypse Now imagery and a killing field, all of which are exaggerated but not as poorly as a near-drowning which exceeds plausibility. But Kong, amid other plus-sized island monsters, convincingly beats his chest, saves the girl and reaches down like his is the hand of God, which makes his breaking of chains in favor of using his brains an interesting proposition and, in any case, entertaining enough for a matinee monster movie. Comparable to The Hunchback of Notre Dame this is not, but don’t be surprised if you notice who is more like a monster and who is more like a man.